Yes, it’s a blog written by me. A rarity I know, sometimes I always feel like writing one, but I have a busy life sometimes and the moment has gone by the time I remember again! So here goes, my first (hopefully of many) football blog in 2017.
Recently I went to three football games in four days in Spain, this time I went with my good friend Emily. A recent suffering supporter of the 1939 & 2008 FA Cup winners Portsmouth FC. She was employed by me, for a yet to be determined fee, as an official photographer and observer/navigator. It helps she likes watching random football games too I guess.
The first game of the three was the Europa League Last 32 game between Villarreal and Italian team Roma. Now anyone who knows me, knows I am pretty organised when I travel. I like things to go without a hitch, so rewind a few weeks ago and I thought I’d purchase tickets for this game online, you’d think it would be easy but it was definitely not. UK Bank cards are not accepted on their website, only Spanish ones (for ‘security reasons’ apparently). I even rang them up, but was told I would have to buy on the day of the game.
A view of Valencia from the Cathedral
Luckily, with the help of Twitter, a Swans fans I know, Tim, contacted his Spanish friend Claudio who bought two tickets for the game, so save me stressing on the day. Phew! Thanks again Claudio, bravo!
I also went against my normal principles and booked my flights with Ryanair, it sounds slightly snobbish I know, but for £40 return from Stansted it was very difficult to refuse. In fairness there were no issues at all with Ryanair. We flew into Valencia, which is about a one hour train journey from Vila-real.
Valencia has some great memories for me and lots of other Swans fans I’m sure, back in September 2013 (when the Swans were actually good), we beat Valencia at the Mestalla 3-0 in our first Europa League Group game. It was one of those rare games when everything was perfect. The weather was glorious, the performance was excellent and we topped it off with a win. Okay they had 10 men for most of the game, but I try to forget that bit!
The Mestalla, home of Valencia and scene of the 3-0 away win
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, Emily and I went for a bit of sightseeing and I reminisced when I saw the Mestalla again (it looks different from before though). A long day of walking around the lovely town of Valencia, before settling down in an Irish bar to watch the Champions League football on that evening. Arsenal lost 5-1 to Bayern (again) and in the other Spain v Italy European clash, Real Madrid beat Napoli 3-1.
The next day saw us catch a train to Castellon, which is an extremely quiet town just outside Vila-real. There were hardly any people out and about, even after siesta time. After a few pre-match coca colas we caught the train to Vila-real. Again, hardly any sign of any other people or any noisy Roma fans on the 20 minute walk from the train station to the ground.
Villarreal’s ground changed the name of their ground just a month ago. Formally Estadio El Madrigal, it is now called Estadio de la Cerámica (Ceramic Stadium). The capacity is almost 25,000 and has been the home of Villarreal since 1923.
I quite liked the ground, the pitch is pretty close to the stands and there is one massive stand behind the goal where the Roma fans were situated. We seemed to be in the minority of ‘tourist’ football fans at the game. With a fair few Villarreal fans bringing their own picnic and blankets for the game ahead (it wasn’t that cold really). We were definitely keeping the average age of the stand down, the eldery Spanish ladies didn’t look impressed with the Roma fan’s pyro either. It was quite a slow start to the game, with neither side having real good chances until around the 30 minute mark when Emerson of Roma curled in a wonderful goal to put Roma ahead.
The obligatory ‘Me at a football stadium really early’ photo
In the second half Roma looked much the better team, with El Shaarawy pulling the strings in midfield. Bosnia and Ex Man City striker Edin Dzeko scored a hatrick and Roma won the game 4-0 in an enjoyable, but one sided game for a neutral. And the kid behind finally stopped kicking my seat and ended up playing a handheld computer game.
An elderly Spanish lady tried to converse with us, but she couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak any Spanish. A guy in front translated ‘Do you support Villarreal or Roma?’ ‘Tourists or Students?’ But it doesn’t seem the concept of groundhopping has caught on in this part of Spain yet. The guy had heard of Swansea City but not Portsmouth! but they were nice enough. After a short train journey back to Castellon it was onto Barcelona the following morning.
Villarreal 0-4 AS Roma (Emerson, Dzeko 3)
The train journey to Barcelona takes about 3 hours, but what is good about the trains in Spain (and France when I went to the Euros) is that every person who has bought a ticket is allocated a seat, so no scrambling to get onto an already cramped train (take note Arriva Trains Wales). At least the long journey gave me time to keep up to date with my football podcasts. (The Guardian and the Football Ramble are good podcasts if you’re interested!).
I have been to Barcelona before, when Wales played Andorra away in 2014, I stayed a few days in Barcelona as Andorra has no Airport. It is easy to navigate the Metro system there and with the help of an app and Google Maps we found our Hostel. A lot of people seem to not want to stay in hostels, but personally I don’t see a problem. I have stayed in some nicer hostels for half the price than a bang average hotel in the past.
A view from Park Guell, Barcelona
The staff at the ‘Yeah’ Hostel in Barcelona were very friendly and welcoming, the room was a 4 bed dorm which was very clean and spacious, along with secure places to put your personal belongings. For around 15 Euros a night, no-one can complain!
Staying in hostels is a good chance to meet other fellow travellers, I have made some good friends over the years through staying in the same hostel as them. When you’re travelling alone it can help to talk to others for tips and to cure the boredom you sometimes get.
The weather so far had been sunny and around 15-20 degrees, I was happy walking around in shorts and a t-shirt whilst splashing on the sunscreen, yet the locals were wrapped up in their coats and scarves! I get strange looks normally, so nothing unusual there!
With the rest of the day to spare it was a good chance to do a bit of sightseeing, The Sagrada Familia was a pretty close walk. A Roman Catholic Church designed by the famous Antoni Gaudi, which started being built in 1882 and is due to be finished in 2026 (Which maybe the date the Liberty Stadium will be expanded. Maybe).
The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
The reason I picked to go to Barcelona was I had never seen a game at the Nou Camp before and I had never personally seen Lionel Messi score a goal. I had seen Lionel Messi play on two previous occasions – The 2014 World Cup Final and the 2015 Champions League Final. I was hoping it would be third time lucky. Barcelona’s game against newly promoted Leganés wasn’t to be played until the Sunday though, so me not being a person to settle for no Saturday game I saw that Gimnástic were playing Numancia in the Segunda Division – both teams have been in La Liga recently.
The other people sharing our hostel room were a husband and wife who lived in Austria, Heidi and Jose, they were also going to the Barcelona game on the Sunday. Heidi seemed to be a big Messi and Barcelona fan and seemed fascinated with the fact I had seen so many games, the Barcelona game would be her first ever live game. It was nice to see someone so excited about going to a football game (I remember those days!).
Saturday arrived and it was off to Tarragona, unfortunately with the train times it wasn’t really possible to have a look around Tarragona, as I’ve heard it’s a lovely place. I think it may have been easier to hire a car and drive, but I have never driven outside of Wales before, so this always seems a daunting task for me, even though I have travelled around Brazil on my own!
There are two train stations in Tarragona, one journey that takes 30 minutes but is a bit out of the way, the other is closer to the town centre but takes one hour and a half. I went for the former, but it was definitely more complicated, as a bus was needed to be caught from the station to the centre then a local bus was then need to be caught to get to the ground.
Emily and I were looking confused at a bus stop and a Spanish guy asked us in broken English where we wanted to go. I said ‘football’ and ‘Gimnastic Tarragona’ and he understood, pointing us to a timetable. By total luck, at this moment a car turned up and the helpful Spanish guy got in, he then asked us if we wanted a lift to the ground. The car had a Gimnastic football scarf on the dashboard, so I took a gamble they weren’t murderers and we both got into the car. Gracias to the two Spanish guys, I did not know their names, but it was a very nice gesture.
Gimanástic Tarragona’s ground is called the Nou Estadi and parts of the ground are currently being developed for the 2018 Mediterranean Games. Tickets were €30 for a view from the side of the pitch or €15 for behind the goal. We chose to go behind the goal, it’s a quaint little ground and it’s possible to get a view of the game for free from the above motorway (but that does not count as a proper groundhop!)
The Nou Estadi. Home of Gimnástic Tarragona
Gimnástic are struggling this season in the Segunda Division, after being relegated from La Liga last season. So it was poised to be a good game ahead. Numancia were the better team but for some lacklustre finishing it remained goal-less until a few minutes after the break and Gimnástic scored a great headed goal after great move. The final score was 2-0 and the fans were great in fairness, they even taunted the players after mis-placed passes, which – maybe I’m wrong – but that doesn’t seem to happen outside of Britain too much. Or at least not known in Spanish football culture.
After the game we had to navigate our way back to the centre without hitch-hiking and then onto the train station in the middle of nowhere. We managed to do this, but more by luck really than any actual know-how. If you’re going to go to Tarragona, then hire a car. It’s much easier and definitely less stressful.
Sunday arrived and it was the day I may finally get to see Lionel Messi score a goal. The game wasn’t until 20:45, so another day of sightseeing was on the cards. Again it was a lovely, sunny day in Barcelona and I do sometimes think I’d like to live somewhere like this, but I can’t speak Spanish so I’ll have to think of another location. We went to Parc de Montjuic, which I would highly recommend going to. You get wonderful views of Barcelona and some nice walks in the park, if you like that type of thing. Emily was doing well with her photography work, as I do sometimes hate asking random people to take my photo and I don’t really do ‘selfies’.
So onto the final game of our trip to Spain. The Nou Camp would be ground 207 for me, I had been on the tour of it before, but had never watched a game there. I bought tickets very easily through their website, our seats weren’t too high or too low, the cost was – what I thought – was a reasonable €60. The free wifi at the ground was also very good and I really think more stadia should make this available to fans.
The Nou Camp, home of FC Barcelona
The thing that was very prominent at the Nou Camp was the amount of football tourists there, I get that I am probably in this bracket too. But it is very similar to what you see at Anfield, Old Trafford, The Emirates and Stamford Bridge. I always feel it has a big impact on the atmosphere in the ground, the Barca fans behind the ground that were waving the flags were very good. Singing throughout and I wanted to be standing where they were! I wouldn’t personally be happy if Swansea started becoming a club where most of the ground were not really interested in the game.
Lionel Messi scored after 3 minutes, so I can now finally add him to my list of top players I have seen score a goal live. Bale, Ronaldo, Neymar, Ibrahimovic and Itay Shechter are included. Now if only I could see a goalkeeper score a goal, my football ambitions are nearly complete!
Happy with the photography here
At this point I was wanting Barcelona to put a hatful on Leganés, especially after their terrible performance in the 4-0 defeat to PSG the previous Tuesday. It didn’t materialise and Leganés were much the better team, creating the better chances. Messi was the only player looking sharp.
On 71 minutes Leganés scored a deserved equaliser and their fans about 2 miles up in the away end started to make some noise. Barcelona invariably scored again after a definite foul on Neymar in the box. Messi duly dispatched the penalty and Barcelona luckily won 2-1 in the end. It was a very uninspiring performance from the home side against a relegation threatened team, Neymar and Suarez were very quiet.
Barcelona 2-1 Leganés – La Liga. Attendance: 63,378
It was easy to get away after the game via the metro, I almost had my phone stolen by a not so discreet pickpocket. Luckily I tend to have my wits about me and automatically, subconsciously had my hand in my pocket when he invaded my personal space and then eventually ran away.
A view from Parc de Montjuic on a glorious day in Barcelona
All in all a great trip, great weather, three new grounds ticked off, no nil-nils and no hitches. Thanks to Emily for being my official photographer on a voluntary basis and putting up with my inane conversations all week. I will be at more random grounds this coming weekend when I travel to Scotland – not for the rugby – to watch the Scottish Messi play for Queen of the South. No cap or sunscreen needed there! Maybe I’ll even write another blog about it.
Me and and a photograph of my photographer Emily Smith (@emilysmithpfc)